NSF grant to help UC Davis preserve rare Hupa native language

About an hour inland from Eureka, in Humboldt County, California, there remains a small group of people who speak Hupa, a critically endangered Native American language. Members of the Hoopa Valley Tribe for many years have been actively engaged in revitalizing their language. Now, their efforts will be supported by Justin Spence, an assistant professor at the University of California, Davis.

He recently received a $245,000 grant from the National Science Foundation’s Documenting Endangered Languages program to research and document the language. Spence teaches Native American studies and also is director of the UC Davis Native American Language Center.

“It’s hard to know how many people are still fluent in the language, but it is probably just a handful,” said Spence.

He will work with a collaborator and a Hupa elder to preserve, digitize, narrate and transcribe audio and video archives and make them accessible through a website.

While the grant will aid Spence’s research, it has much wider implications. Now, recordings and transcribed texts will be available to many people, including scholars, but also to members of the Hoopa Valley Tribe who are trying to bring the language back into everyday use. 

“Their materials will be useful to linguistic science, but I also hope useful for revitalization projects happening in Hoopa Valley,” Spence said. “We want to bridge that gap with this project.”

Hupa elder has recordings

Hupa elder Verdena Parker grew up speaking Hupa in Hoopa Valley, home to the Hoopa reservation. She and her mother continued speaking Hupa until her mother’s death in the late 1990s. Parker had made audio recordings of herself telling traditional Hupa stories, and during the 1950s and early 1960s made silent movies of Hupa dances. Now, Parker’s stories will be transcribed, and the film footage will be narrated in the Hupa language.

“I wanted to see these stories preserved for the Hupa people,” Parker said. “I’ve kept these stories in my head and wanted to share them.”

Parker said hers was one of the few families who spoke Hupa exclusively at home. When she was growing up, speaking Native American languages was discouraged, and those who did were seen as backward. As attitudes have changed, more people are interested in reconnecting with their culture and language, but it isn’t easy.

“Some of the older people are trying to learn, but Hupa is very difficult,” Parker said. “There are classes for preschoolers and they’re doing well.”  

Spence’s research

Spence’s research is focused on “evidentiality,” or grammatical markers that indicate sources of information and viewpoints in the language.

“The grammar of Hupa is very complicated, but evidentiality is clearly an important part of it,” said Spence, who earned a bachelor’s degree in French and linguistics from UC Davis and a doctorate in linguistics from UC Berkeley. “Details of the distinctive Hupa are still largely unexplored, but have tremendous potential to improve our general understanding of how such meanings are expressed in human languages.” 

Hupa is part of the Athabaskan language family, spoken across North America with concentrations in western Canada and Alaska, the southwestern United States, as well as Northern California and coastal Oregon.

The project is a collaboration among Parker, Spence and Ramon Escamilla, assistant professor of linguistics at the University of Central Arkansas.

All recordings and transcriptions produced by the project will be archived with the Survey of California and Other Indian Languages at UC Berkeley.

Media Resources

Karen Nikos-Rose, Research news (emphasis: arts, humanities and social sciences), 530-219-5472, kmnikos@ucdavis.edu

Justin Spence, Native American Studies, 530-754-7173, jspence@ucdavis.edu

Jeffrey Day, College of Letters and Science, 530-219-8258, jaaday@ucdavis.edu